skip navigation
Hayao Miyazaki
share:
Remind Me
 Pom Poko

Pom Poko

As urban sprawl from Tokyo threatens to destroy the woodlands surrounding the city, a group of tanuki (a native animal of Asia that is part of the canine family and resembles a raccoon) band together to fight the greedy developers. Under the guidance of tanuki matriarch, Oroku Baba, the creatures hinder and frustrate the developers with their tricks and shape-shifting skills but can their magic really create a roadblock to progress? An animated cautionary tale for the entire family but opting for a more realistic ending instead of the expected "happy-ever-after" fadeout, Pom Poko (1994) is a refreshingly different alternative to the American-made animation features from Walt Disney Studios. It's much closer in spirit to Animal Farm than say, The Lion King. Directed by Isao Takahata, a renowned Japanese animator who is a long-time colleague of Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, 2001, Howl's Moving Castle, 2004), the film blends quirky humor, environmental concerns and genuine tragedy in a contemporary fantasy that holds appeal for both young and adult viewers in the same manner as a Miyazaki film.

Since 1997 with the release of Princess Mononoke, the films of Miyazaki have enjoyed wide distribution in the United States and even received Oscar® nominations. But Takahata's work, with the possible exception of Grave of the Fireflies (1988), is relatively unknown here except among animation buffs and Asian film cultists. Despite the fact that Pom Poko was the highest grossing film in Japan in 1994 and was even submitted by Japan to the Academy of Arts and Sciences as their Oscar contender (it was not chosen as one of the five finalists in the category of Best Foreign Language Film), it never found a U.S. distributor until recent years. Part of the reason may be due to the film's peculiar but oddly endearing protagonists - the tanuki with their big eyes, swollen bellies and fondness for human junk food, especially tempera, popcorn and pepperoni pizza. In Japanese folklore, these woodland creatures are considered harbingers of good fortune with a mischievous side which erupts in playful pranks and the ability to change their appearances: they can assume the form of humans or even inanimate objects like iron pots, stone Buddhas and soccer balls. In Pom Poko, the male tanuki also possess a secret talent - the ability to alter the size of their testicles which in one strategic scene can function as both a parachute and as a weapon to beat and smother their enemies. This little detail was highly amusing to Japanese audiences, particularly children, but probably prevented it from getting a theatrical release here because of conservative parental groups.

According to Takahata, Pom Poko was inspired by an incident in his own neighborhood. A bamboo grove near his home was suddenly cut down by developers, forcing the animals and birds that nested there to find new habitats. Takahata began to imagine a similar scenario where the central protagonists became the tanuki in his story, "Heisei Tanuki-Gassen Pon Poko" (The Battle of Raccoon Dogs in the Heisei Period). "The film is not so much fiction as a documentary of the destiny of the raccoon dogs as seen through their own eyes," said Takahata in an interview with The Daily Yomiuri. Indeed, the film's witty, playful animation can't disguise the grim trajectory of the narrative in the second half when the tanuki are faced with either being absorbed into the world of humans or extermination. And similar to Takahata's own experience, the film did mirror a situation that was actually happening in western Tokyo at the time; The Machida City development was driving badgers from their habitat in significant numbers - many were killed crossing roads - and a protest group, the Badger Action Committee, was formed to educate the public (the group also served as an information resource on Pom Poko and even make a cameo appearance in the film).

Although Hayao Miyazaki served as executive producer on Pom Poko, the film is solely the work of Isao Takahata. The music score, which incorporates Japanese folk music and children's songs, is by the Okinawan rock group, Shang Shang Typhoon. Thanks to a distribution deal between Studio Ghibli and Walt Disney, Pom Poko is now available on DVD in the U.S. (TCM will air both the Japanese language and English language versions) but be prepared - the movie can be occasionally puzzling to Westerners since a great deal of the story is derived from Japanese myths and pop culture. For instance, the scene with the faceless people is based on spirits known as "Nopperabou" who pop up in Japanese tales of the supernatural. The elderly tanuki who transforms into a samurai on horseback was inspired by a 12th century story, "The Tale of Heike," and some of the creatures that appear in the memorable monster parade sequence are straight out of traditional folklore and will be familiar to horror/fantasy film buffs who have seen the Yokai Monsters series (yes, Karakasa, the one-eyed umbrella creature, makes a brief appearance here). The finale in which some tanuki depart for Fudaraku (Heaven) is based on the beliefs of an Old Buddhist cult which believed you could reach Nirvana by boarding a ship bound for the shores of Fudaraku. There are also numerous in-jokes involving current fads and snack foods such as the vitamin drinks the tanuki favor which are quite popular in Japan; they are offered in vending machines and offer a needed energy boost (some claimed they contain aphrodisiacs) to tired workers.

Despite the lack of a theatrical release in the U.S., Pom Poko is continuing to reach audiences that recognize it as something more sophisticated and eccentric than just an animated film for children. Tasha Robinson, writing for the Onion A.V. Club web site, noted that "like Miyazaki in Howl's Moving Castle, Takahata uses his protagonists' physical mutability to express their mental states: Depending on the context and mood, they morph from chubby teddy bears to photorealistic animals. The film's tone similarly morphs from giddy, gleeful silliness to deadly sorrow, as Takahata follows the adventures of playful cartoon critters one moment, then shows their real-world equivalents getting slaughtered or starving the next...For all its goodhearted cheer, Pom Poko is a glum indictment of modern Japan's disjunction from the natural and spiritual world." And Richard Scheib of the SF, Horror and Fantasy web site wrote that "Pom Poko might on the face of it seem to have nominal similarities to the Disney talking animals fantasy or the likes of TV's The Care Bears (1985-8). But Takahata approaches the story with a frequently side-splitting sense of humour and (occasionally) a pathos that is light years away from any of these...while the first half of the film is overtly comedic, the second half becomes serious and resembles much more the contemplative fantasy of a Miyazaki film...That said, it still remains a perfect delight."

POM POKO (JAPANESE VERSION)
Producer: Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki
Director: Isao Takahata
Screenplay: Isao Takahata
Film Editing: Takeshi Seyama
Art Direction: Kazuo Oga
Cast: Kokondei Shinchou (Narrator), Makoto Nonomura (Shoukichi), Yuriko Ishida (Okiyo), Norihei Miki (Seizaemon), Nijiko Kiyokawa (Fireball Oroku), Shigeru Izumiya (Gonta).
C-119m. Letterboxed.

POM POKO (ENGLISH VERSION)
Producer: Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki
Director: Isao Takahata
Film Editing: Takeshi Seyama
Cast: Jillian Bowen (Kiyo), Clancy Brown (Gonta), David Oliver Cohen (Ponkichi), Olivia d'Abo (Koharu), John Di Maggio (Ryutaro), Marc Donato (Sasuke).
C-119m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford

VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

ADVERTISEMENT
TCM Shopping
  • Spirited Away
  • Stunning, Academy Award winning animated... more info
  • $23.95
  • Regularly $29.99
  • Add to cart
  • Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
  • In the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien comes an... more info
  • $12.95
  • Regularly $19.99
  • Add to cart
  • Castle in the Sky
  • From acclaimed Academy Award winning director... more info
  • $12.95
  • Regularly $19.99
  • Add to cart